Security tight as Hong Kong set to debate China national anthem bill

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(C) Reuters. Anti-government protesters march against Beijing’s plans to impose national security legislation in Hong Kong

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By Sarah Wu and Clare Jim

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hong Kong police fired pepper pellets to disperse protesters in the heart of the global financial centre on Wednesday and arrested about 240 people as national security legislation proposed by Beijing revived anti-government demonstrations.

As tensions soared, riot police were deployed around Hong Kong’s Legislative Council, deterring protesters who had planned to gather there as a bill was due to be debated that would criminalise disrespect of the Chinese national anthem.

Angry over perceived threats to the semi-autonomous city’s freedoms, people of all ages took to the streets, some dressed in black, some wearing office clothes and some hiding their faces beneath open umbrellas in scenes reminiscent of the unrest that shook Hong Kong last year.

“Although you’re afraid inside your heart, you need to speak out,” said Chang, 29, a clerk and protester dressed in black with a helmet respirator and goggles in her backpack.

Many shops, banks and offices closed early. Police were seen rounding up dozens of people, making them sit on a sidewalk and then searching them.

The latest protests in Hong Kong follow the Chinese government’s proposal for national security legislation aimed at tackling secession, subversion and terrorist activities in the city. The planned laws could see Chinese intelligence agencies set up bases in Hong Kong .

The proposal, unveiled in Beijing last week, triggered the first big street unrest in Hong Kong in months on Sunday, with police firing tear gas and water cannon to disperse protesters.

The United States, Australia, Britain, Canada and others have expressed concern about the legislation, widely seen as a possible turning point for China’s freest city and one of the world’s main financial hubs.

But Chinese authorities and the Beijing-backed government in Hong Kong say there is no threat to the city’s high degree of autonomy and the new security law would be tightly focused.

“It’s for the long-term stability of Hong Kong and China, it won’t affect the freedom of assembly and speech and it won’t affect the city’s status as a financial centre,” Hong Kong Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung told reporters.

“It would provide a stable environment for businesses.”

U.S. President Donald Trump, already at odds with Beijing over trade and the novel coronavirus pandemic, said on Tuesday the United States would this week announce a strong response to the planned legislation.

China responded by saying it would take necessary countermeasures to any foreign interference.

ARRESTS

Protesters in a downtown shopping mall chanted “Liberate Hong Kong! Revolution of our times” and “Hong Kong independence, the only way out”.

One protester was seen with a placard reading “one country, two systems is a lie”, referring to a political system put in place at Britain’s 1997 handover of the city to China, which is meant to guarantee Hong Kong’s freedoms until at least 2047.

“I’m scared … if you don’t come out today, you’ll never be able to come out. This is legislation that directly affects us,” said Ryan Tsang, a hotel manager.

As the protests in the financial district died down, hundreds of people gathered in the working class Mong Kok district on the Kowloon peninsula, where protests flared repeatedly last year.

Police, acting much more quickly than before to nip protests in the bud, said they had arrested about 240 people in three districts, most for illegal assembly.

Hong Kong’s most prominent tycoon, Li Ka-shing, said in a statement security laws were within every nation’s right, but Hong Kong had the “mission-critical task” to maintain trust in “one country, two systems”.

Hong Kong media reported Beijing aimed to expand the scope of the legislation to include organisations as well as individuals.

SHARES SLIDE

Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen pledged humanitarian relief for any Hong Kong people fleeing to the self-ruled island while Japan said it was “strongly concerned” about the situation.

The U.S.-China Business Council urged “all leaders to take those steps necessary to de-escalate tensions, promote economic recovery and the rule of law, and preserve the ‘one country, two systems’ principle”.

Asian shares slipped over the rising tension between the United States and China. Hong Kong shares led declines with the Hang Seng (HSI) falling 0.46%, though it kept a bit of distance from a two-month low touched on Monday. [MKTS/GLOB]

Protesters and pro-democracy politicians say Hong Kong’s National Anthem (NYSE:ANTM) Bill, which aims to govern the use and playing of the Chinese anthem, represents another sign of what they see as accelerating interference from Beijing.

The bill carries penalties of up to three years jail and or fines of up to HK$50,000 ($6,450) for insulting the anthem. It also orders that primary and secondary school students in Hong Kong be taught to sing the anthem, “March of the Volunteers”, and learn its history.

The anthem bill is set for a second reading on Wednesday and is expected to become law next month.

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